Volunteer Gardeners: The Enemy Within, by Rachel Cassidy

January 28, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

Are you a garden volunteer? Or a professional gardener? An employer of either? You may find this piece interesting.

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

Volunteer Gardeners: The Enemy Within, by Rachel Cassidy:

At this very moment, in a thousand gardens up and down the country, unqualified and inexperienced volunteers are pulling up weeds and pruning roses, for free.

What a wonderful thing to do, are you thinking?

How nice, to get as many people as possible out there gardening?

Hellebores with leaves.

Ah, it’s the only way that many of these historic gardens can be maintained, you say?

But take a moment to think of the damage that these volunteers are doing to professional gardeners, to horticulturalists, to everyone trying to earn a living within this industry.

Firstly, why would an employer think that they need to offer a living wage to a gardener, when they have volunteers queuing up to work there for free?

Secondly, volunteers don’t need to hold any sort of qualification, in fact they don’t even need to be experienced. It invariably says so on the advert: “come and work in this lovely garden – skills or knowledge aren’t needed as you will receive training”.

Saraccoca humilis at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

What does this say about the employers’ view of gardeners? Well, it clearly suggests that gardeners are ten a penny, and as long as you have one who knows what they are doing, all the others can just get on with what they are told to do. Show them which are the weeds, and that’s all they need to know.

I have no problem with volunteers working on community projects: I do it myself, but I do think that commercial establishments should pay their workers.

February 2014 Copyright Anne Wareham, Veddw 001s

Yes, I have heard a million times that many of our large gardens, especially the National Trust ones, could not possibly operate without their volunteers, and I understand the truth of that: but there should be a demarcation between skilled and unskilled workers.

I think there is a world of difference between an unskilled volunteer taking tickets, or showing people round a house and the complex blend of skills required to be a proper gardener. By using volunteer gardeners, organisations like the National Trust are contributing to the decline of youngsters coming into the industry by removing thousands of jobs.

And if you are thinking “Yes, but they can’t afford to pay a decent wage to a decent number of staff in the garden” then I would invite you to consider the ticket income from “garden only” entrants and to ask where all that money goes. Without the gardens, how many stately homes would attract any visitors? Would you pay to go into a stately home surrounded by plain grass, or neglected parkland?

Lamium in frost S at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Not to mention the fact that the few paid gardeners now have to spend their time micro-managing the volunteers: organising schedules, sorting out disputes, re-allocating tasks, advertising for more, tactfully coping with the useless ones and making good the damage and mistakes made. All of which is lovely if the gardener wants to move into management, but frankly, most of us who choose to be professional gardeners want to actually do the gardening, not the managing.

Perhaps these establishments could be persuaded to operate more of an apprentice scheme, rather than a free labour scheme. Volunteers already have to be assessed on arrival, shown how to use tools, and then directed into work: it’s not much of a step further to have them record the work they do as they progress around a garden, perhaps getting “stamps” for a logbook as they do so. At the end of a season, they tot up their stamps and see if they can progress to the next level. It could become something like an NVQ system, with optional written sections for further advancement.

Who knows, the commercial establishments may even end up being able to charge people to gain a qualification, in the same way that we gardeners have to pay for our own further education.

Rachel Cassidy


See also Noel Kingsbury

Rachel Cassidy portrait

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: